New Jersey native Rachel Zegler cast as Maria in Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story'

Kaitlyn Kanzler
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Rachel Zegler, a teenager from Clifton, was just cast in Steven Spielberg's version of one of the most timeless musicals: "West Side Story."

Zegler, 17, announced on Instagram that she had been cast as Maria, playing opposite Ansel Elgort as Tony, known for his performances in "The Fault in Our Stars" and the "Divergent" series.

Zegler is no stranger to the stage, performing as part of Hackensack Theatre Company's "Hamiltunes." On Instagram, Zegler wrote that she played Maria onstage several years ago.

"I never could have imagined that I'd be taking on the role again in Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story,' " Zegler said in the post. "I send a huge thank you to everyone who helped make this incredible dream a reality — I never could've done it alone."

The story continues below the Instagram post.

Caseen Gaines, co-artistic director of Hackensack Theatre Company, said he had the opportunity to work with Zegler twice last January and that she has "phenomenal talent." Gaines said he has worked with a number of talented students over the past several years but there is just something about Zegler.

"You know you're in the presence of a once-in-a-career kind of talent, and Rachel is that," Gaines said. "We're very proud of her."

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Zegler told Deadline that she saw the notice seeking Latina actors on Twitter last January and recorded herself singing "Tonight" and "Me Siento Hermosa," the Spanish version of "I Feel Pretty." For her, Maria was the first lead character that was Latina. On Instagram, Zegler said characters like Maria are extremely important.

Clifton teenager Rachel Zegler was cast as Maria in Steven Spielberg's version of "West Side Story."

"As a Colombian-American woman growing up in this day and age, strong roles like Maria are so important," Zegler said. "To be able to bring that role to life — a role that means so much to the Hispanic community — is so humbling."

Gaines said many people knew she was auditioning and that they put a large call out for Latinx actors.

"There was so much optimism that she would be cast, because we knew she was perfect for the role," Gaines said.

Elgort is not the only big name with whom Zegler will be sharing the screen. Rita Morena, who played Anita in the 1961 version and won an Oscar for her role, will also be in the film.

According to Deadline, Spielberg sought to cast Latina and Latino actors for the musical.

"I’m so happy that we’ve assembled a cast that reflects the astonishing depth of talent in America’s multifaceted Hispanic community," Spielberg told Deadline.

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